Appreciating Those Who Write – Joseph Bentz

We all think about suffering, and we have all suffered, are suffering, or will suffer to some degree, but leave it to Joseph Bentz to investigate the upside of pain, loss, and adversity. A professor of English at Azusa Pacific University, Bentz is also a novelist and writer of books related to the Christian experience. His latest book, Nothing is Wasted: How God Redeems What is Broken (Beacon Hill Press in Kansas City, 2016) explores the idea that redemptive elements are all around us and are even within the worst circumstances.Nothing is Wasted

I was in a prayer group with Joe for a few years (the group is still running, but I have not attended in a long time), along with a few other professors in the Azusa Pacific University community, and I found him to be encouraging and persuasive. The group was formed to encourage one another for creative projects and endeavors, and to pray for one another as the struggles ensued. My husband and I plan to return to this remarkable group when more time has opened up for us, but I can say here that it is made up of gentle, uplifting individuals who are humble, productive, and inspirational. They have certainly known disappointments, struggles, and suffering, but they quietly persist in their efforts, their faith, and their kindness.

Joseph Bentz has written ten books, including five novels and five books related to Christian life. We met last week at Starbucks near the campus so that I could interview him about Nothing is Wasted.

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Joe does not hesitate to confront the most difficult issues that Christians face, and yet his personal demeanor is calm, thoughtful, and gentle. Not opinionated, he nonetheless has some resolute ideas about our walk with God, our awareness of the overall context of our faith in Christ, and our choices as believers in the God of redemption and hope. His books include subjects that some of us prefer to avoid: God’s silence when we want him to speak to us (Silent God), the delay we experience when waiting for God to act, (When God Takes Too Long), and now the reality of suffering and God’s redemptive “song” in the midst of our troubles in Nothing is Wasted.

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I was eager to ask him a few questions after I finished the book. A believer in Christ, I have nonetheless had a crisis of faith more than once, during a prolonged period of chronic pain due to a car accident neck injury, a series of disappointments, and cataclysmic church issues that threatened to derail my faith.

Me: When did you start writing this book, and what inspired it?

Joe: I started the book in 2013 and finished it in 2015. I was interested in the ways that “redemption” was scattered in unexpected places. I met many people at writers’ conferences who had suffered great pain and who were writing about their experiences. I met a woman at one of the conferences who had been hit by a car, and yet she talked about it as a life-changing, positive experience. I wondered what the perspective of others was about the painful things that had happened to them.

Me: What kind of research did you do for the book?

Joe: I read articles and books written by people who had experienced painful events, and I also spent time with others that I met who had suffered great losses. They gave me permission to tell their stories, as they wanted them to be told. They also wanted to help others who might be experiencing the same thing.

Me: It almost seems as if you are writing in response to St. John of the Cross and the Dark Night of the Soul.

Joe: That would be more prominent in Silent God and the issues I write about in that book. For this book, I had observed that many writers had dealt with great emotional pain and difficult circumstances, and I wanted to find out how it affected them. Were they bitter? Did they blame God? How did they deal with the effects of the tragedy or difficulty?

Me: I have struggled with the idea of what we can expect from God. Will he protect us? Does he prevent some tragedies? What can we look for in our ongoing walk as people of faith?

Joe: We can look for hints, echoes, and traces of redemption. Somehow, God will bring good out of the pain, both for ourselves and for others. The pain of our losses may never subside, and yet we can observe that good comes out of them in a variety of ways.

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It is a theme song in the universe, according to Bentz. We are in a world of tragedy, disasters, and death, and yet despite the nature of the world, we will find the traces of redemption eventually, if we are open to them. We don’t have to find them, says Bentz. We can ignore them, succumb to bitterness and anger, abandon our faith. Or, we can celebrate the echoes, hints, and traces of good that we find, even in the worst of situations.NothingWasted1

It might be tempting to enlarge upon the severity of the suffering that see in the world, and yet Joe Bentz can provide both a presence and an argument that challenges us to look beyond the suffering to God’s redemptive plan, which eventually culminates in eternity with him, although we have little knowledge about what that will look like.

This book is an invitation to see the best instead of the worst, a call to look up into heaven instead of down into the circumstances, and it is also a subtle, yet persuasive, call to redemption as well as a full-on confrontation with the worst that can happen. Here’s to Joseph Bentz for looking into the darkness and finding flashes of light.

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Find out more about Joseph Bentz at his website, JosephBentz.com.

Order Nothing is Wasted from Amazon here.

The Live Poets’ Society – Part 2

The group is now called The Poetry Society of the Huntington Library, as Chris Adde told me when I phoned him last week to let him know that one of his poems was featured in that week’s blog post. Originally, the group’s name was a response to the film, The Dead Poets’ Society, now so dated that some of the recent younger members of the group had not even heard of it. The new title is dignified and appropriate, I think. Previously, I mentioned that they got started a few years before I joined them in 1991, but after recalling our decennial celebration in 2000, I realize they formed the group in 1990.

Members of the circle came and went during my years of participation, but there were some regular participants and occasionally new poets, scholars from out of state who were doing research for a few months. Aside from Chris Adde, I don’t know who belongs to the society now. The original group was made up of some noteworthy and extraordinary people.

For a time, Dr. John Steadman, one of my professors in graduate school who had a most genteel manner, joined us. A noted Shakespeare and Milton scholar, his list of publications is imposing. I didn’t dare ask them, but I think a few of the ladies were mildly infatuated with him. He was doted upon at one of our home luncheons. Dr. Steadman was honored by his friends at the library after he passed away in 2012. AveryWe never had a consensus about who actually started the group, but it was a toss up between Midge Sherwood, a mover and shaker who got the San Marino Historical Society going, and Joan Elizabeth White, who was a professor of English at Citrus College in Azusa, California for more than thirty years.

Midge believed in History (capital “H”) and worked to preserve the history of San Marino, the Huntington Library, and the state of California. She wrote books about the Golden State, General Patton, and John Fremont. A thorough researcher and stalwart patriot, Midge was particularly emotional about poetry. She certainly wrote plenty of it, and until her last year of activity at the library when she could no longer get around well, she never missed a meeting.MidgeJoan Elizabeth White was a calm and delightful individual. We often had dinner together after a day of research at the library, waiting for the rush-hour traffic to subside. She lived in an apartment across the street from MacDonald’s, and I asked her once if she ate there occasionally. Her response: “Yes, almost every night. I really should reform.” After her car was stolen, for which we were all thankful, knowing she had become a less proficient driver as she aged, she took a taxi every day to the library. Joan

Mary Tempest Bachtell (what a great name) was a volunteer at the library. A retired elementary school teacher, she wrote poetry for children and adolescents. Her stories about her sister and her father were a treat for all of us. She passed away in 2004.Mary Kazuko Sugisaki spent half the year in the United States and the other half in Japan. She and Joan worked together for a time translating Japanese poetry and prose. Kazuko is a well known Anais Nin scholar and has written several books about major literary figures. I am not sure she still makes the trip to the United States anymore, but if she does, I hope to see her again.KazukoJeanne Nichols was a supremely engaging woman. Jeanne had taught English at Harbor College in Los Angeles, not too far from her lovely home on Mount Washington. Her book of poems, Running Away From Home, can still be purchased from Amazon. Passionate about her garden, she often wrote poems about it as well as about her cats. In many ways, she was the heart of the poetry group, and her responses set the tone of our meetings. Even in the face of nursing home stays and physical suffering, she remained positive. She passed away in 2010. JeanneHer closest friend, Norma Almquist, was a warm, pleasant, and most interesting poet. Norma set out, early in life, to have as many different kinds of jobs as she could have. She was an airplane mechanic in the Women’s Marines, wrote field manuals for the Army’s Quartermaster Corps, edited a literary magazine, did social work, worked in factories, and taught English. After Jeanne’s children were grown, she and Norma traveled. We heard about their trip across the Nubian desert on camels, their island adventures, trips to India. Norma told me that she would get bored and hop a plane to Paris to sit on the Left Bank. A champion of light, humorous verse, Norma wrote a collection of it, Traveling Light, which can be ordered from Amazon. Norma passed away at the age of 89 in 2011. I smile now when I remember her phone call to me when she turned 87. “I weigh the same as my age,” she said. Here she is is 1944 when she was in the Marine Corps and then later near the end of her life.YoungNorma

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Christopher Adde, handsome, funny, and kind, was a welcome addition to our group. His lovely British accent enriched his recitation of poems. I don’t have any photos of him except the one of our entire group, which includes one member (on the far left) only there for a short time, and I cannot recall her name (apologies). Chris is still in the group and has added some innovations, such as an annual poetry award for Huntington staff and researchers.PoetsFor a time, I was the youngest member of the Live Poets, and I learned much from listening to them in conversation. What an honor to have known them all.Carla

Here’s to the memory of twenty years with these delightful poets. We had so many outstanding meetings and celebrations, luncheons and Christmas poetry celebrations, and some glorious walks through the Huntington gardens. Cake

Bright, Lucid, and Clear

When I was at the Los Angeles Public Library earlier this year, I photographed the step fountains on the way up to the entrance coming in from Flower Street, and was drawn in by their names:  Bright, Lucid, and Clear. Designed by Bertram Goodhue, the building’s architect, they are meant to support the library’s theme, “The Light of Learning.” http://www.lapl.org/collections-resources/blogs/lapl/history-printed-word-step-step. For me, they represent states of being that I find sublime and elusive, that I am perpetually seeking and only occasionally finding.Bright

For a couple of weeks, I have felt the opposite: dim, vague, and clouded. I was sick, my husband was sick, and we were sorting stacks of receipts for taxes. Some projects and deadlines were only haphazardly accomplished and met. I thought about what Elizabeth Berg says about deadlines and writing in her book, Escaping Into the Open: The Art of Writing True:  “I believe it’s critically important to try for a certain church and state-like separation” (131). Nonetheless, I was glad to meet at least one deadline. We had a series of events scheduled, but only made it to about half of them, the house got cluttered, and the mail piled up. I had the ongoing feeling I was spinning my wheels in the mud.

On the upside, friends from Virginia have been visiting, and I spent time with them along with other close friends, which was entirely enlivening, and I felt bright and present. The poetry reading on February 21 (last week’s post) was a high point. Somehow, preparing the poems and reading them was galvanizing and uplifting. On that day, I was lucid for at least an hour. LucidCold remedies and medications have prevented me from feeling clear, but I did have a few moments of recognizing what I need to do for the continuing path I am following. Perhaps the clearest moment was one of appreciating the beauty of a beach sunset.ClearBeachsunset

Copies of the most recent issue of Westview arrived, a literary journal published by Southwestern Oklahoma State University, featuring three of my poems. They included visuals with all of them, which was a pleasant surprise to me. One of the poems was an elegy for my father who passed away in 2009. I am gratified that it found a home. I also managed to get some new poems written and hope to send them out this week. Continue, stay on the path, seek illumination, I tell myself.

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What conditions assist you with your tasks and projects? Or what beliefs and approaches? Here’s wishing all of you the experience of feeling bright, lucid, and clear!

Berg, Elizabeth. Escaping Into the Open: The Art of Writing True.  New York: HarperCollins, 1999.

Redemptive Rejections

I got a nice one the other day:

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I was in a great mood all week. “Nice writing.” A compliment from an editor, though not as exciting as an acceptance, is still wonderful. When I do submit to the Tampa Review again (probably in a few months), I will write a note to the editor and perhaps even include a copy of this note as a reminder that I was invited to submit material again. These notices with personal comments are what I think of as redemptive rejections.

Some journal editors send rejection notices that soften the news. I received one a couple of weeks ago that said, “we know that reading rejection letters is never an enjoyable experience, having been the recipients of them ourselves.” Most of them are print-outs that contain no personal signature or note, like this next one (an old one) from The Threepenny Review, and this practice seems efficient as a business practice. I am fine with those ones too as they get the point across quickly. Waiting is over, and I can then send the item to another journal.3PennyRvw

Sophy Burnham, in For Writers Only, states that “A writer lives with rejection.” She refreshingly points out that besides the rejection notices,  writers often live with self-rejection and routinely face “doubt and loneliness and fear” (155). I suspect that if the self-rejection can be managed, the outside rejections lose some of their kick. This topic could make an entire post, but briefly: How can self-rejection be managed? Lots of ways. One way is to write plenty of things. Another way is to send out plenty of things. That way, rejections will become routine, and you won’t take them so hard. I have been sending out more material and am therefore getting a large number of rejections. A few acceptances. When I open the envelope and read the notice, I don’t feel a dramatic response or even a sense of personal defeat. I might feel disappointed, especially if I had high hopes for a certain journal to accept a poem I thought they might like, but the feeling is like a morning mist that fades with the emerging sun.

Here is another redemptive rejection I received from one of my favorite journals:

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The editor “enjoyed it,” which is a high compliment from The Missouri Review. Encouraging. Uplifting. The comment redeemed the rejection for me, and I was thankful each time I thought about it. Many editors take the time to write a brief note, and that also opens the door to creating a stronger professional relationship with them. They can even get to know you a little bit, as Carolyn See says in her delightful book, Making a Literary Life. She writes, “Rejection is a process, not an event” (91). She had a long correspondence with an editor who kept sending her rejections, though eventually he gave her an assignment which then won an award. She suggests sending a thank you note to each editor who sends you a rejection notice. You can thank them for causing you to rethink the piece, or even just for taking the time to read your work. This practice, which she calls writing “charming notes,” can create new relationships.

We have all heard stories about writers who received a number of rejections for now famous works, and over the years, when I hear these stories, I don’t feel encouraged or inspired. I understand the point: the author did not give up and eventually the persistence paid off. Instead, I feel the way that some women might feel who have unsuccessfully tried to conceive a child, and they hear anecdotes about women who experienced the same thing until one day, lo and behold, the long wait is over . . . for the other women. What does make me feel encouraged and inspired are the redemptive rejections.

What are some of your experiences with rejection notices? How do you fight off self-rejection or doubt, loneliness, and fear? What are some of the best rejections you have received?

Of course, we don’t need any encouragement about getting acceptances, and when I got this email, I was of course delighted:

“Thank you for sending us ‘A Clear Horizon.’ We love it and would like to publish it in the next issue of A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”

I think of Carolyn See again and what she says about getting something published. When you do, not too many people will care aside from your family, friends, and “maybe your editor.” What they will be looking for, though, is “whether or not you’re going to turn into an asshole” (104). I did send her a “charming note” thanking her for the great advice as well as for the fun and laughs I had reading the book, and she sent me back a lovely thank you for the thank you.

Burnham, Sophy. For Writers Only. New York: Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, 1994. Print.

See, Carolyn. Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers. New York: Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, 2002. Print.

 

A Room With a View

I am looking out of the window from our hotel room at the Westin Bonaventure in Los Angeles, California. Thankfully, for this professional conference my husband is attending, we were given a room that faces the Los Angeles Public Library, an historic and beautiful building. The hotel itself is the location for several films: In the Line of Fire, True Lies, and Nick of Time, to name a few.IMG_2800Film crews have been setting up all day to film at 5th Street and Flower just beside the library, and I have enjoyed watching them unload huge lights, gigantic cord spirals, and other items I do not recognize. Amplifiers and generators? Storage containers? Electric tools? They have built a structure that looks like a portion of the street after an explosion, and now they are spreading around a black powder that will likely produce some special effects. We were told by the hotel staff that there will be shooting sounds and a car explosion at 10 p.m. tonight. With such a lively and interesting view, I am writing, contentedly settled at the desk in our room, where I will be for several more hours.IMG_2813I know many writers, poets, painters, and musicians, and as you would expect, they all have individual methods for their work, settings they like, environmental preferences. As Alexandra Enders noted in her article called “The Importance of Place: Where Writers Write and Why”:

Conrad Aiken worked at a refectory table in the dining room; Robert Graves
wrote in a room furnished only with objects made by hand. Ernest Hemingway
wrote standing up; D. H. Lawrence under a tree. . . Ben Franklin wrote in the
bathtub, Jane Austen amid family life, Marcel Proust in the confines of his bed.

She also notes that many writers “choose libraries, intermediate spaces that aren’t totally isolated but are quiet, protected, and controlled.” When I toured the Los Angeles Public Library earlier today, I felt myself being drawn to the quiet spaces scattered here and there, especially spaces that displayed tables.IMG_2815I am ultra-sensitive to the environment wherever I am. My long-suffering husband is the exact opposite. He can thrive and work almost anywhere, especially if he has a cup of coffee. My friends know that the ambiance in any given restaurant is supremely important, and it may take me a few minutes to select the right spot (away from bright light, chairs not too hard, tables not wobbly, tasteful décor, no brash TV noises, no traffic behind my chair). Thankfully, they usually allow me to select the space. My senses are so acute that loud noises can seem traumatic, bright light can feel like an assault, and the wrong person seated in the next booth or at the next table can ruin the day’s experience.  At home, I can create the right environment, and when we are traveling or venturing out, I love it when an opportune setting is available. This desk at the Bonaventure is now a sacred spot, and as the sun and clouds shift and create new moods on the landscape, I am having a productive writing day.

Earlier, I sat in the lobby, and I occasionally venture out to hotel lobbies to think and write. The Bonaventure lobby is splendid for many reasons, not the least of which is the beautiful fountain. People watching, the sound of water splashing, a sound table and a chair that doesn’t wobble — these are gifts.IMG_2771 (1)What is the setting in which you write? Are you particular or easygoing about your setting? Do you require certain accouterments? Whatever the case, we all seem to find our way through whatever impediments present themselves. Vive la différence!

Enders, Alexandra. “The Importance of Place: Where Writers Write and Why.” Poets and Writers: The Literary Life. March/April 2008. Web 30 Jan 2016.